Yullin is divided into two sections that can be termed west and east, new and old, ugly and a-tad-ugly-but-with-charm. Stroll the twisting alleyways of east Yullin, and you are in another century. Bristly pigs share family courtyards that date from the Ming dynasty, crusty old men in Mao jackets fiddle away the day playing mahjong, and donkey carts make rounds cleaning the communal hole-in-the-ground toilets. It is China's rapidly disappearing face, and it begs to be explored and discovered. But before doing so, I head for breakfast.
Over a bowl of hot, sweet soy milk â€“ slurped, not sipped, mind you â€“ I am approached by a well-dressed man. An English teacher at a nearby high school, he shyly asks if I would come say hello to his students.
For a second they sit and stare as if in disbelief when I step into the overcrowded classroom, but then they roar to life, applauding and cheering. A quick hello turns into a lively question-and-answer session.
It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed and undeserving of the attention, gratitude and friendship that is freely lavished upon me simply because I am American. One girl meekly raises her hand and asks to kiss me, and with a squeal she runs up and throws her arms around me. Hands greedily grab at photos of my family, feet stomp when I ask if they want to see postcards of Pittsburgh, and the smiles never cease. My coat comes off; I find some chalk and, before I know it, I am a teacher. Though an entertainer seems more like it. I make them laugh; they make me want to cry.
After the one-woman "Yankee Doodle Dandy" show, I insist they sing for me. Without the slightest hesitation, the classroom joyfully rings out with the Chinese national anthem, and I stand there with tears in my eyes. This is why I travel.
The teachers seem just as excited to see me. Mr. Liu is tickled when I accept to speak to his class, while I have to disappoint Mr. Li and Miss Zhang by saying there just isn't any time. Mr. Wang excitedly asks if I will lecture on Karl Marx. Smiling, he seems satisfied with the suggestion that I can substitute showtunes for a chat about communism.
And the show goes on until the evening. There are too many students in this 4,000-strong school and too little time, and so we combine classes. In near-fluent English they hammer me with questions, with the most popular being: Do I like the NBA? Am I rich? Do I watch football (soccer)? What do American students like to do? Why isn't my husband with me on this trip? Will I sing "My Heart Will Go On?" Some questions are so seriously and sweetly asked that it is difficult not to chuckle: Do you believe in love at first sight? Will you sign my textbook? Can I embrace you? Will you remember me?
I lead the classes in a Celine Dion sing-along of the theme from Titanic. I ask who their favorite American pop stars are: Michael Jackson? Yea! U2? Yea! Britney Spears… uh, who? Fortunately, Britney and her burgeoning bosom have yet to hit Yullin, but, like McDonald's, I fear for the future.
More meaningful questions regarding Tibet, Taiwan and human rights issues are absent. They are interested in their American counterparts, anxious for Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics and proud to be Chinese.
And me, I decide that the Great Wall can wait a day. In the years to come, when I think back to Yullin, it will be not to a crumbling wall, but to this extraordinary example of hospitality that I had been handed. At day's end, I am giddy with happiness, I am hoarse from constant chatter, and I am off to find a hotel.
Their wide-open faces are like fine French porcelain dotted with rose buds. So pink are some of their cheeks that I can't help but reach out to pinch them.
Chen turns her head toward the other room where her mother is, and in a hushed voice asks, "I hear that American students date? They have boyfriends. What do they do on dates?" Her mother only speaks Chinese, yet the young girl is cautious. She knows she shouldn't be talking about boys.
Twenty-four brown eyes brimming with a bygone innocence burn into me, breathlessly awaiting an answer. I don't dare talk freely about the antics of today's American teens, the drugs, the sex, the comparative slacking in school. I explain the typical school day in the States, and their eyes already roll in disbelief upon hearing that students end their classwork by 3pm. Chinese students start school at 7am, only to finish after 8pm, with two breaks to return home for lunch and dinner.
It is my third night in Yullin, with each having been spent at a student's home. It is Wongbewi, the best student in class seven, who insisted I stay with her family the second night.
Hers is a simple home, with no big-screen TV (Wongbewi has an actual little brother) and with a concrete floor on which shoes are worn and a communal hole-in-the-ground toilet in the courtyard where I have privacy. Her parents bend over backwards to welcome me, serving mini-banquets of mouth-watering Chinese food. That same night, I am then dragged to another student's house for a birthday party, where I am force-fed by the feisty grandma.
Chen, my high school hostess for the third night, insists she couldn't sleep the evening before my arrival, so excited she was to welcome me, the first foreigner she has met. She organizes a get-together with a dozen of her closest friends, who beg me to stay another night. But I insist I must move on. Yullin is a city where I could easily spend a week, bopping from house to house, or even a year, teaching English at the school. But I am not sad to leave, because I know that more Chinese hospitality lies ahead.